Nietzsche and The Will To Inquire

Over at the Hannibal Blog an interesting discussion is going on over Nietzsche’s message on the nature of truth. Andreas Kluth sets the stage with a letter from 19 year old Fritz to his sister. 


Nietzsche challenges his sister’s notion that it is easier to not believe in God. Doing so I think he illuminates how I try to approach blogging and knowledge in my general life.

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

 […]

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

In others words, it is easy to take for granted accepted wisdom and propositions that don’t challenge one’s own opinions and bias. Nietzsche understands that it is not comfortable to have to follow truth wherever it leads, so to speak. I think Sam Harris explains this idea well in his debate with Nature writer Philip Ball. 

A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand.  Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one. 

 A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried to arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.

Nietzsche and Harris argue that something should only accepted as true only if it “has really occurred or is actually the case” (to take the definition of fact from the OED). This notion undergirds all of science with healthy philosophical doubt – making scientists natural skeptics which leads to ever expanding inquiry.  
I’ll take two cases to illustrate how this guides my approach here. In case 1 I hear something that doesn’t fit with my established understanding, but recognize it is still important to inquire about it – maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m right but knowing why is useful regardless. Frankly, I really wanted to show why what I heard was wrong (it would be uncomfortable if it was true). Case 2 is more difficult, I deliberately seek out contrary arguments to my political position. 

Case 1:  I happened to be watching Glenn Beck (not a frequent occurrence) and he was discussing the role of prayer in school and the wider topic of separation of church and state. In the course of his discussion he flashed some graphs made by David Barton which purported to show declining SAT scores and rising crime rates with the removal of prayer and religion from our public schools and state. The most relevant bit starts around the 4:00 mark.


After seeing that I was immediately skeptical of those graphs. I certainly didn’t remember reading that in the research on rising crimes rates presented in Freakonomics! First I did a simple google search of David Barton and his graphs and discovered, surprise, that he’s a “pseudo-historian” that plays loose with quotations and facts. Here’s Barton on those graphs in question:


The Real Reason American Education Has Slipped – David BartonThe funniest movie is here. Find it


Again, I didn’t want to just take another source’s word (one that I’m sympathetic too) for it, so I emailed Steven Levitt on the actual research. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet received a reply (will post when/if possible). Since that avenue hasn’t opened up yet, I had to do a bit more of the dirty work myself – in short, with my admittedly basic understanding of statistics, it became clear that Barton was setting somewhat arbitrary dates of vague events to imprecise moments on his SAT and crime graphs. Mostly, he was just confusing correlation with causation.

Case 2: I’ve been a fairly consistent proponent of reforming our tax code to introduce a VAT, but I’ve tried to continue to highlight challenges to and deficiencies of a value added tax. In my personal inquiry into a VAT’s effects I came across a strong argument against its introduction in the United States. Randall Holcombe of George Mason University finds that a VAT would have high administrative costs, slow economic growth, and not raise as much revenue as expected. He also notes that replacing the income tax with a consumption tax like a VAT would double tax those caught in the intergenerational transition years. That is certainly a valid concern and no doubt is unfair, but also is a recipe for inertia. 
Economists tend to favor a VAT because of its relatively low deadweight loss compared to other forms of taxation. Holcombe explains why in the United States a VAT’s deadweight loss wouldn’t be as low.

In the EU the VAT was designed as a replacement for other transaction-based consumption taxes like the sales tax, whereas if one were to be introduced into the US it would be added to the existing sales taxes collected by states. 

[…]

An appendix to this study illustrates, using a supply and demand framework that will be familiar to students of economics, that the welfare loss of a VAT placed on top of state sales taxes would result in a substantially higher excess burden of taxation than a VAT of the same rate in a tax system without state sales taxes. The analysis in the appendix arrives at two conclusions important when considering levying a VAT in the US, where states already use a sales tax to tax the same tax base. First, even if the initial VAT rate is modest, once imposed, both state governments, with their sales tax rates, and the federal government, with its VAT, will have the tendency to raise rates so that the combined sales tax plus VAT rate will be larger than would be optimal. 

[…]

The second important conclusion is that a federal VAT would lower state sales tax collections in any event, so state revenues would suffer if a federal VAT were imposed. The reason for this is that all taxes reduce the economic activities they tax. Adding a VAT on top of state sales taxes would reduce the sales tax base states now rely on for a substantial amount of their revenues.

Holcombe suggests the optimal strategy is to cut spending (maybe true but not persuasive because of political realities), but if one must increase tax revenues it should be done by broadening the income tax base. 


The important lesson I want to stress is that all systems have flaws and recognizing so isn’t a sign of a weak argument but of acknowledging reality. It won’t necessarily make my advocacy of a VAT easier or more comfortable but the will to inquire will ensure I’m a disciple of truth not dogma.


(photo: Nietzsche 1864)
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  1. July 8, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    That's a great picture of Nietzsche when he was younger. He would have looked like this when he wrote the letter you quote from. He was 19 at the time. Amazing maturity.Those videos excerpts are frightening. They make your point. Keep doing what you're doing.

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